Dr. John Berthrong
First Parish Milton, Unitarian Universalist

A Sermon: Exploring the Dao

READINGS: Zhongyong (ca. 4th Century BCE; Focusing the Familiar) 25 & 22

Zhang Zai (1020-1077), "The Western Inscription" (Ximing)

When people think of the great religions of the world, Confucianism is usually not one of the traditions they consider. A great philosophy, a profoundly ethical worldview, even an accomplished form of social ethics (depending on your age and gender), but not what most people would call a religion. Yet, as we have heard in our readings for today from the Zhongyong and Zhang Zai’s "Western Inscription," I believe it is hard to mistake the religious dimension of these two great depositions of the Confucian Way.

The idea for this sermon came to me as I have sat in the congregation for the last year and a half looking at the front of our Meeting House. I have thought, in line with some of the suggestions during our future planning process, about adding more of the symbols of the world’s religions to our sacred space, and then pondering, just what would I suggest for the Confucian Dao? For here too Confucianism is unlike other religions; it lacks any common symbol for itself. Be this as it may, I decided to share some of my appreciation of a tradition that I first encountered almost 35 years ago as a sophomore attending the University of Hong Kong. Having grown up in Norman, Oklahoma, I had always suspected that there was more to the world than Oklahoma and Southern Baptist churches.

I have come to the conclusion that the best way to answer the question about whether or not Confucianism is a religion is to say that this is not quite the right question to ask. It is better to say that Confucianism is a tradition with a profound religious dimension; but it has other dimensions as well and in traditional East Asia it would never have occurred to one Confucian to not consider another Confucian a Confucian merely because of her or his adherence to the religious dimension of the tradition. Spirituality is not what really defines the Confucian Way.

The great modern Confucian teacher Mou Zongsan (1909-1995) defined the key sensibilities of the Confucian Way as "concern consciousness" and "intersubjectivity." Mou was a very profound philosopher, but he was also someone who was deeply seasoned in the religious dimension of the Confucian Way. Mou often recounted the following set of cultural analogies: for Greece and Rome, we find "wonder," as in wondering how things work and how we can analyze them. Second, the religions of West Asia such as Judaism and the great family of faiths of South Asia, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, all epitomize what Mou calls "awe" consciousness. Here Mou means that the reaction of the devotee to the divine reality is one of awe, of prayer, of petition. Moving on to East Asia, Mou believes that when we think of Chinese culture we think of concern for self and other. Hence a form of social ethics will always be part of the East Asia patrimony.

But Mou wants to argue that concern for self only makes sense in terms of the self’s relation to others. We are only persons in the presence of other persons. We make ourselves in relation to others. Confucius taught, and Mou believed that he was simply restating the teaching in a more modern philosophic idiom, that if someone wants to establish their own self they must first establish others. The greatest of Confucian virtues, pronounced ren, is often translated as humaneness or humanity. The idea here again is that we can only be humane in the context of living with justice, civility, wisdom, and faithfulness for and with other people. These four other virtues, by the way, along with humaneness, are the foundational five virtues of the Confucian Way.

Historical Interlude

As I tell my students, one of the best rules of thumb in differentiating a sermon from a lecture is to not to indulge in too much scholarly or historical explanation. However, I also go on to tell them, all good rules deserve to be broken from time to time. The Daoists, those great correctors of Confucian seriousness, liked to prod Confucius when he doggedly embraced one of his favorite virtues to the detriment of the actual, living reality in front of his eyes.

Though Confucian philosophy, spirituality, and patterns for everyday life have been likened to the cultural DNA or glue that holds East Asian cultures together, I have found that few North Americans of non-Asian descent know anything about the tradition. Even many educated East Asians today know little of the history of the Confucian Dao.

But if they did know anything about their history, an educated Chinese, Korean, Japanese, or Vietnamese would recognize both of our readings. Moreover, they would also know that these readings represent the flower of thought from the two greatest periods of Confucian creativity. The Zhongyoung, or Focusing the Familiar as I now translate it, or as it is commonly known in English as The Doctrine of the Mean, is believed to have been written by a direct descendent of Confucius and that it embodies the highest form of philosophy and the deepest spirituality of the great classical period of Confucian thought. Confucius himself was born in the 6th century BCE and the last of the great early Confucian masters died in the 3rd century BCE. For the Chinese this is the golden age of philosophy and is likened to the best of the classical ages of Greece and Rome. Over 1,200 years later, Zhang Zai (1020-1077) is one of representatives of the second great flowering of the tradition in the Northern Song dynasty. Zhang has been now revered for almost a thousand years as one of the group of scholars who revived the true spiritual teachings of Confucius and the other early masters and who passed it down to generations of East Asians ever since. In the West Zhang Zai and his fellow scholars are known as the Neo-Confucians.

Chinese friends often liken the two great periods of their tradition to the two wings of a bird. Moreover, they are now hopeful that the Confucian Way will again soar in a third wave of creativity in the modern world. But they are not unmindful that they have a lot of work to do in order to revive and reform their beloved tradition.

For instance, New Confucians are aware of the great historic problems with the Confucian Dao in terms of modern life. First, they recognize that Confucianism had almost always been too closely identified with authoritarian governments. In the modern period, therefore, there has been an intense debate about how Confucians can embrace and embody human rights as part of the renewed Confucian Dao. Second, Confucians also realized that they, along with every other great religious tradition, must renounce the oppressive regime of patriarchy that has so long deformed the lives of women and men. A Confucian Dao that is now only of interest to men is now of interest to no one whatsoever.

Primary Scriptures

All religious traditions have a favorite set of primary and secondary scriptures and various contemporary methods of interpreting their favorite texts. Focusing the Familiar has been a primary Confucian classic ever since the classics became a canon of revered texts. The Western Inscription took on the role of a secondary scripture by the 12th century and has remained a favorite ever since. In fact, I probably have heard it quoted almost more times than any other Confucian texts over the last five years.

I usually never ask myself why the Ximing is so often quoted for the simple reason that it is one of my favorite texts as well. But I do have a theory about why Zhang’s short essay has become so fashionable.

The reason for this is that it is one of those primary passages in the tradition that speaks to present reality. What present reality you may ask? Without putting too fine a point on it, this has become the favored Confucian response to the ecological crisis. It is a wonderful writing, I hope you agree, that speaks of the person as the child of heaven and earth and the companion of the creatures within the whole cosmos.

Relation and Concern

The Western Inscription is a perfect example of Mou Zongsan’s notions of concern consciousness and intersubjectivity. What New Confucians claim is that we are bound, even obligated, to have a concern for all other persons and for the earth and the heavens as well. There is actually a close Western spiritual parallel to this Confucian call for concern, and it comes from the Quaker tradition. The Quakers call for us to have a concern for ourselves and others. The Confucians often defined the Dao, when it is realized in our heart-minds, as getting the Dao for ourselves in service to others. What lies at the root of the moral attitude is concern for the whole creation.

Confucians are now also adding new interpretations to their primary and secondary scriptures. They too have become the children to the Enlightenment Project. From the Confucian perspective there are many good things to be said for the Enlightenment and Modernity. One of these is the global emphasis on human rights and ecological responsibility.

However, New Confucians are prone to wonder if some of the tools of the Enlightenment and Modernity are fit to tackle the job of enabling human rights for all humanity and ecological sanity for the whole world. For instance, Confucians are nervous that the Western Faustian desire to enlighten the mind of the individual, a noble ideal, has gone too far and has lapsed over into the most self-absorbed individualism. The perfect icon for this attitude was a bumper sticker that said, whoever has the most toys, wins. I have often wondered, wins what, and Confucians would echo my question.

We need to be strong persons. We need to respect the rights of other people. We need to begin to respect the rights of nature once again. But we can never do this as isolated individual units. We are only human fully in relationship with others broadly conceived.

But there is something even more at stake here. Relationship in and of itself is not enough. You can be an individualist in relations to trees: Reagan was reported to have said that if you saw one Redwood you seen them all. No, the real question is the concern of the relationship. Here the notion that intersubjectivity becomes a crucial aspect of the equation. We must become concerned enough to have a deepened form of intersubjectivity with all the creatures of heaven and earth.

This is the spiritual message of the Focusing the Familiar, Zhang Zai, and Mou Zongsan. It may not be as exciting as message as some, but it strikes me as a very profound spiritual message for our common habitat. Frankly, I think that we need all the help we can get, and in this, the sober, concerned, entirely practical voice of a reformed Confucianism has something to contribute. I dearly hope that these Confucian scriptures and teachings can become, if not primary, at least a secondary manifestation for all of us in modern North America.